Bill Gates took to Reddit for an AMA on Jan. 29 to talk about philanthropy, drinking water made from recycled human feces, and artificial intelligence in a question-and-answer spanning 14,569 comments. In one notable post Gates said that he was working with Microsoft on a Personal Agent, an as-yet-unannounced project that may or may not be related to smartphone assistant Cortana.
Gates prioritized philanthropy over technology during the AMA, using the platform to tell Reddit users about this year’s annual Gates Letter. He and his wife, businesswoman Melinda Gates, bet that the lives of people in poor countries will improve more in the next 15 years than in any other period in history, and that their lives will improve more than anyone else’s.
Where will these improvements come from? Vaccines, education, hardier crops, and smart devices, the letter said.
To that end, the Gates Foundation is continuing its work to fight malaria, polio, and other diseases.
Another one of those projects is the OnmiProcessor, which made headlines when Gates drank water from a facility that turns human feces into drinkable water. He said that he hopes to have hundreds of the devices in dozens of cities within 5 years, scaling the project up after that.
“Sewage is a problem. Since it costs money to process it just gets dumped in slums in poor countries. The system the rich world uses of pumping in clean water and pumping it to a processing plant is too expensive,” Gates said during the AMA, in reply to user pulsar95. The OmniProcessor was developed as part of a challenge from Gates to engineers to create sewer treatment plans that could cover the cost of operation by producing energy and clean water.
The OmniProcessor will be deployed in Senegal later this year, Gates said in a blog post from Jan. 5.
Reddit user goalgi, asked for Gates’ opinions on governmental funding of research, which they were concerned was reaching “dangerously low levels.”
“Research is very underfunded compared to the ideal,” Gates said. “Society captures so much benefit from innovation that inventors don’t so there is not enough risk taking.
Government (and Foundation) funding of research helps but it still should be more. The United States funds a lot more than any other country even relative to its success. It should do more medical and energy and educational and other research. Politicians often think short term unless the voters tell them to avoid that. Perhaps the most outrageous thing is we have not raised Energy research funding to help solve climate change!”
One scientific field that Gates said he isn’t interested in? Immortality research. “It seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer,” he wrote. “It would be nice to live longer though I admit.”
“I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”
He does believe there is still a place for human programmers going forward:
Other people asked for his advice about the technology industry as well. A user who goes by the name castmemberzack asked for career advice about how to stay on the forefront of technology. Gates suggested they major in both programming and biology, in order to see how “programing can help biology.”
Gates praised the Microsoft HoloLens as well as providing a look into the technical challenges of creating it, saying that “the full promise” of virtual reality is still “a few years of software applications” away.
“Making the device so you don’t get dizzy or nauseous is really hard – the speed of the alignment has to be super super fast,” Gates said.
Another user asked for a more general prediction, about where technology and Microsoft will go in the next 30 years.
The Personal Agent may be a new project for Microsoft. Although Cortana and other smartphone applications can already remind users of appointments and events, the capitalized
“Personal Agent” hasn’t been detailed before. Finding things in a physical space could be one of the applications of the HoloLens, with its ability to project 3D objects and tag physical locations.
Some of Gates’ advice was less specific to engineering, but perhaps universally useful: